Loving and Supporting Adult Children of Alcoholics

By: KD

I am an adult child of an alcoholic (ACoA). This has worn on all aspects of my wellness. I have tried Al-Anon, therapy, journaling. With all my efforts in trying to overcome my experiences, I am only just beginning to heal. There are moments of breakdowns and regression. But, also moments of strength and defiance. The process is agonizingly slow and will continue over my lifespan. This is a fact that I’ve come to accept.

My fiancé has been around long enough to see the damage my parent’s addiction has caused on myself and my family. It hasn’t been an easy road for him though. He came from a stable home. He hasn’t always known what to say or how to help me. As I’ve helped him through it, I started making a list of things partners of ACoAs should know—tips and suggestions. Now, I want to share them with you. It is not easy loving an adult child of any alcoholic/s. But, you can help improve their wellness and your own wellness with the right steps.


Do Some Research

parent alcohol

When getting into a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic, many people do not understand what this means or how it influences a potential partner’s behaviors. For starters, ACoAs lived in a home with one or more alcoholics and suffer symptoms of trauma related to the drinking, instability, and neglect. There are 13 typical characteristics of adult children of alcoholics described by the late Dr. Janet G. Woititz, a well known psychologist studying in the field of ACoAs. It is not uncommon for these adults to struggle with intimacy and trust. Among this population are also higher rates of anxiety, depression, and mental illness. With poor coping skills, adult children of alcoholics often engage in disengagement from their environment. They are four times more likely to develop alcohol and substance abuse than non-ACoAs.

This is just a brief summary of the many serious aspects of adult children of alcoholics. In order to best help your ACoA partner, you need to understand them as best possible. Utilize organizations like Adult Children of Alcoholics or the National Association for Children of Alcoholics to strengthen your basic understanding. Reading books will give you a more in depth look at the world of ACoAs. Adult Children: Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John and Linda Friel is a good place to start. Another good option is Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics by Herbert L. Gravitz and Julie D. Bowden.

You are in a difficult position. The more knowledge you have on the matter, the better you will be able to assist your partner.


Be Patient

You will not always understand or like behaviors that adult children of alcoholics display. They may care too much or seem unreasonably distant. Inappropriate reactions can occur with conflict. This may be upsetting or confusing to you, but it is an ACoA’s personal form of normal. Like Jody Lamb explains in the video above, adult children of alcoholics are hardwired to act in certain ways based on their childhood trauma. They don’t always make sense when taken out of the context of the alcoholic home. Yet, they still occur in tense situations. Often, it takes exorbitant effort to act against these compulsions. As someone who loves an ACoA, you are allowed to have your own emotional reaction to situations, but you also need to be patient. Act with empathy as your partner attempts to change their patterns.


Build Up Safety and Comfort

holding hands

With an unstable home, many adult children of alcoholics don’t know what it is like to have a stable relationship. They distrust everyone around them. With every incidence of their parent’s alcoholic consumption, the nervous system was stimulated over and over until the amygdala became hypersensitive and the limbic system remained in a heightened state and cortisol levels spiked up. Years of this environment cause ACoAs to develop mental walls plus emotional dysregulation. Their sense of safety is compromised. In order to help build back up their safety and comfort, develop a daily routine. Implementing a routine can create a sense of normalcy. Be consistent and follow through on what you say. Children of alcoholics are disappointed by their parents over and over again. When you establish yourself as reliable, your ACoA partner will develop a sense of comfort, trust, and begin lowering their walls. Finally, try to minimize stress at home. Ensure that there is plenty of time and space for relaxation. Heightened cortisol levels from childhood trauma usually equals chronic stress. In a constant state of stress, the immune system decreases, heart problems worsen, irritability and anxiety increase, sleep deteriorates. Overall, it is not good for a person or a relationship. Allowing an ACoA to unwind is crucial to their sense of safety and comfort.


Make Time for Yourself

free time

While it is important to love and support your partner through their recovery, it is equally important to keep your own wellness up. Pardon the cliche, but you cannot pour from an empty cup. You may not consider yourself one because it is emotional, but you are in the position of a caregiver. Caregiver burnout can result in mood swings, lack of empathy, poor nutritional and physical health, and isolation from your social circle. In lieu of letting yourself deteriorate, set some limits and guidelines as to how you will get through caregiving. List out your needs. Find time to fit these into your week. Don’t overload yourself with activities that drain you. Get in the practice of saying no. Eat healthy foods and get some exercise. Find a hobby for yourself. Make a point out of spending time with friends or family. It is so unbelievably important that you take care of yourself. Furthermore, taking care of yourself will make sure that your ACoA partner does not have to act like a parent to you, but a partner.


I want to wrap this up by recognizing the strength in every person who is willing to love and support an adult child of an alcoholic. It is hard to balance your own well-being with that of another person. When you love someone, you take on their baggage; and, I know from personal experience that this baggage can be heavy. The fact that you are even taking the time to read this all the way to the end shows your dedication and compassion for something you may not understand. For that, thank you. You are the people who give ACoAs hope.

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